Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) embodied the power of reason in times of utmost irrationality. He started his intellectual itinerary as a young and enthusiastic Stalinist thinker in the devastated post-World War II Poland. He wrote his dissertation on Spinoza and became quite early convinced that there was something deeply rotten at the heart of the communist system. After Stalin’s demise, Kolakowski spearheaded the critical Marxist awakening from what could be called, with a Kantian phrase, the dogmatic sleep. Kolakowski articulated, more persuasively than anyone else, the revisionist rebellion, the search for an alternative Marxism, rooted in the abandoned emancipatory impetus of the “Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts.”
The revisionists opposed what they perceived as the libertarian young Marx to the old, authoritarian one, and even more emphatically to the Leninist interpretation of Marx. They exposed the atrocities of Stalinism and decried the rise of a bureaucratic Leviathan shamelessly claiming to represent an increasingly exploited proletariat. Many espoused existentialist ideas and tried to reconcile the Marxian legacy with humanist individualism. Intensely moral, committed to the defense of honor and dignity, Kolakowski was one of the noblest apostates in the history of ideas. He wrote immortal pages about Middle Age heresies and identified his own quest for truth with the dangerous choices of those who had rejected theological absolutisms of any sort.
The great Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, who was a communist in the 1920 and broke with the Party quite early, consideredhimself a Christian without a Church and a socialist without a party. In a way, this was Kolakowski’s path as well. In 1956 he championed a vision of socialism radically opposed to the stultified Leninist tenets. He reclaimed the honor of socialist values against ideological masquerades and police terror. He defended the individual, the real human being, against the new forms of slavery. The communist party, headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka, failed to muzzle the indomitable trouble-maker. A celebrated essay by Kolakowski captured this irreconcilable tension between the party hacks, whom he called the priests, and the truth-tellers, referred to as jesters. He denounced the betrayal by the communist party of the liberating promises of 1956. Expelled from the party in 1966, Kolakowski lost his teaching position at the University of Warsaw in March 1968 when he took the side of the revolted students against the rabidly anti-Semitic communist apparatus. He was forced into exile, taught in England and the US, and wrote immensely illuminating books on the leftist traditions, on myth and religion, on human freedom, and on great philosophers. A genuine fox, as Isaiah Berlin would have put it, he rejected any reductionist attempt aiming to pigeonhole him in Procrustean intellectual formula and proudly enjoyed a theoretical eclecticism encapsulated in the title of one of his most influential essays: “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”.